A halo of light reveals the shadow of a man that examines the bowels of a silver hill, in the tunnels of the María de Potosí mine (Bolivia). His words, loaded with coca and fatigue, allow us to get to know his risky work and to discover a piece of the history of his old city, Potosí that during the Colonial times was the largest city in America.
Silence and darkness. Narrow, intricate, unlikely roads.
To ascend and to descend through galleries and tunnels. Strange, powdery, almost unbreathable air. Sensation of breathlessness. Doubtful, uncertain steps, perhaps fearful... Maybe the best thing would be to return and feel the sun again, that giant of golden fringes that dozes in the peak of some hills with silver bowels.
But there is no chance to go back. Steps get larger, become vigorous and repetitive. The hollowness of the mines -with its agonic quarreling of bars and hammers- swallows the men transforming them into blurred shadows, in dusty and sweaty shadows that miss the Sun, the light, the open field... "Because here there is not night or day. The hours are almost the same ".
The echo of the galleries gives a strange, overwhelming, almost phantasmagoric shade to each word; then, the diffuse and yellowish lights of a trio of lanterns point toward the end of the tunnel: "the voice came from there" they whisper.... and the luminous cones cross each other, trying to find the extinguisher of those "equal hours ".
The grapeshot of light hurts the eyes accustomed to the shades. The golden radiance of the lanterns washes over a coppery face of chisel marked wrinkles. A smile appears in the recently illuminated face, while nasty and restless hands try to frighten off the intruding rays of light: "why have you come here?" he asks in a neutral tone that shows neither happiness nor bitterness.
The man turns -turning his back to the luminous cones- and then returns to his indefatigable search for silver in the María de Potosí mine... suddenly, a friendly hand offers him a handful of leaves of coca; the miner turns, he observes, think, scratches his head and decides to accept: "it is the only food left we have in the tunnel. It is good for the hunger, the cold and even the fatigue ".
Since Colonial time, the indigenous miners of Potosí descend to the depths of the mythical Cerro Rico or Sumaj Orcko (majestic mountain), with hands full of cheat the fatigue in their exhausting work days that surpass the twelve hours of continuous work in some cases.
A contrast to the official history of the Villa Imperial de Potosí: of the stories of adventurous and sagacious conquerors that found the fortune in Cerro Rico are the dramas of thousands of natives forced to work in the extraction of the silver. Slag in the city, discouragement inside the mines... and churches and mansions were built and there were fascinating parties.
Nobody wanted to hear the distant wailings of death that shook the bowels of Cerro Rico.
The Colonial city was wrapped by the splendid halo of fortune. Frenzy and ostentation. The streets crowded with people, famous artists swarmed in the land of silver; so why should we worry about the lives of the men of the Andes? They were not worthy enough, the only important thing were the mineral rich hills that fattened the coffers of the crown.
"Here we leave part of our life. I swear to God that it is very difficult gaining a living in the mines, there are so many dangers: the gases, the collapses, an explosive wrongly installed. But it has always been the same. You don't have any idea of how many of us have died in the tunnels..." With no more words, the man- helmet askew, worn out pants; boots covered with mud- assails an exhausted vein. The coca dozes in a dirty bag.
for El Tío (the uncle)
Airs of loneliness in the square of Potosí. Old mansions,colonial churches, wooden balconies, very narrow -maybe too narrow- streets under the brow of the Cerro Rico, a perforated giant, an authentic labyrinth of tunnels. The city -serene and excessively calm now- exhibits the features of its proverbial beauty. That is why it was designated as Cultural Patrimony of Humanity.
Voices, whispers, myths and legends. The mining market crowded with people. They sell coca, non filter cigarettes, liquor, fuses and explosives; they tell stories of fortunate men, of apocalyptic collapses and they also talk about El Tio, the spirit that inhabits the mines, the owner of the hidden wealth that decides about the life and the death of the men of the tunnel.
Invincible, veteran and powerful, El Tío could not be extirpated by the predicaments of the Spanish catechists... and the natives of the Andes, rendered cult to him in secret, they drank with him, invited him leaves of coca and requested his permission to extract the mineral and asked him to leave them alone and allow them to work in peace. They asked him not to take their lives away.
Devil's appearance. Goat beard, swaying horns,reddish skin, and El Tío's image is always present in the tunnels. He shines in the darkness and the men of Cerro Rico never forget it, not even when they return to the light or when they walk down the nostalgic streets of Potosí, the city of the silver, of the slag and, also, of the wealth lost in history.